All images: Max Bögl


Powering a new era of sustainable transport

Smart cities, the growth of urban populations, and sustainability are drivers for the expansion of rail and urban transportation networks. Antonio Colla, electrification global rail segment leader for ABB, explores the drivers for growth across the globe and the power distribution innovations that are making it possible.

Global rail infrastructure continues to grow at a rapid speed, with the total market expected to reach €204bn ($223.9bn) by 2025 from €177bn ($194.3bn) in 2019. 

One of the key drivers of this growth is rapid urbanisation. By 2045, the world’s urban population will increase by 1.5 times to 6 billion, with the bulk attributed to emerging economies, such as India and China. As cities struggle to cope with the resulting increase in traffic and congestion, this is creating strong demand for additional rail infrastructure. 

Then, of course, there’s the sustainability agenda. Amid mounting global warming concerns, energy instability, and scarcity of resources, countries are pivoting to sustainable transport infrastructure.  

As one of the cleanest modes of transport, rail will have a lead role to play in this transition. This was seen as the EU Commission recently set out plans to double high-speed rail traffic by 2030 and triple it by 2050 as part of its green and digital transformation of the European transport system.


Additionally, with the emergence of smart, digitalised cities, a robust rail-centric network will remain the backbone of the wider transportation framework of autonomous shuttles, ride-sharers, and scooters.  

The result has been an unprecedented period of innovation as technology leaders have risen to the challenge of helping rail and transport stakeholders achieve their future growth ambitions – particularly when it comes to the all-important task of power distribution. 

SkedGo CEO John Nuutinen. Credit: Skedgo

MOTIONTAG managing director Fabien Sauthier. Credit: MOTIONTAG

Speed as a driver 

Arguably, one of the most important considerations for any rail operator is a reliable and resilient power supply.  

With millions of people relying on train and subway systems to get to work, home, and other important locations, even the smallest delay or issue caused by a power outage can quickly lead to chaos. For example, a storm in the UK can bring much of the country’s rail network to a complete standstill for days, causing widespread disruption. 

Consequently, the importance of ensuring high-power reliability is often mission-critical. As such, any modernisation or modification work to the rail power network must be achieved at speed and without any, or as little as possible, disruption to services.   

Alongside this is the importance of a bespoke approach. Every country or region has its own unique set of circumstances when it comes to the condition of existing infrastructure and growth ambitions, meaning a ‘one size fits all approach' will not suffice. 

With millions of people relying on train and subway systems, even the smallest delay or issue caused by a power outage can quickly lead to chaos.

Fortunately, the power distribution market is keeping pace. At ABB, for example, we continue to work closely with leading rail operators and investors around the world to deliver customised, solutions-based packages, designed to enable existing urban transport infrastructure to become more sustainable, energy-efficient, and digitalised. 

For the ultimate in agile and efficient power distribution, today’s scalable ranges enable operators to ‘pay as they grow’. Being prefabricated, pre-engineered and pretested for simple execution, changes can be accomplished quickly without the associated downtime.   

For larger upgrades with limited time available for execution, there is also the option of an e-house, a prefabricated, pretested transportable substation, designed to house medium- and low-voltage switchgear, critical power equipment and automation cabinets for remote command and control.  

This presents a remarkably cost-effective, risk-reduced alternative to conventional construction with minimum site works for installation and commissioning. For large urban transportation projects, e-house modular solutions allow flexibility in the execution plan and a very limited impact on the revenue service in case of retrofit or extension of existing lines.  


Yet, it is with a long-term focus that a modular approach is most game-changing. As operators seek to balance efforts between supporting the future vision while serving immediate economic requirements, it gives the opportunity to modernise in incremental stages while maintaining reliability and business as usual.  

mobility as a service railways

Credit: SkedGo | MOTIONTAG

The role of energy management systems 

Aside from traditional infrastructure projects, there is also growing interest in finding new ways to use energy more productively in urban transport. 

As with all industries, more urban transport networks are seeking to build resilience amid an unstable grid infrastructure. Alongside this, environmental concerns demand reduction in energy use and peak power demand of railway systems.  

Further interest comes in the opportunity to recover regenerative braking energy – the energy generated in the process of slowing down a train – which is traditionally wasted or partially reused by other trains accelerating simultaneously.  

One answer lies with battery energy storage. Although not new, battery energy storage systems, otherwise referred to as ‘behind-the-meter’, are quickly coming to the fore as a way for operators to manage energy costs by leveraging peak shaving, load shifting, and maximisation of self-consumption.  

Another big benefit is that these systems can provide critical backup power, preventing revenue losses due to outages, while contributing to energy reductions and making the overall railroad system more competitive.  

It is, without doubt, an unprecedented time for the urban transport sector as it seeks to address the challenges of densifying city centres, sustainability and future mobility, all the while serving the immediate need.  

By taking advantage of the newest innovations which have been purposely designed to power this new age of growth, operators and investors can ensure that they are on the right track.  

All images: Max Bögl